In theory, the BC government press conference on Monday was about health professionals joining police officers on mental health calls.
It actually became the latest example of Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth dodging and weaving multiple questions about what the province plans to do about policing in Surrey.
“I know this is an important decision,” Farnworth said, after confirming he would make an announcement Wednesday on the matter, now in its fifth year of uncertainty.
“And I also know this: Police agencies with municipalities or the RCMP are professional organizations, and yet the decision is made on Wednesday, I know [they] They’re going to continue to do an amazing job.”
On the surface, Farnworth’s responses left doubts about whether the province will annul Surrey and force it to go through with the transition to the Surrey Police Service or allow it to return to the RCMP.
But reading between the lines, there were signs that the province’s decision is being guided by the concerns of politicians not in Surrey, but in Ottawa.
BC is heavily dependent on RCMP
Hours before Farnworth’s press conference, the Toronto Star reported that the federal government is considering his own big change for the RCMPone that would move him away from on-the-ground surveillance and toward an FBI-style model focused on issues of national security and cybercrime.
And while that would have national implications, there is one province that would impact more than any other: British Columbia.
“For some time we have been the largest user of RCMP resources in Canada,” said former Attorney General Wally Oppal.
The RCMP has about 6,000 contract police officers from coast to coast, but nearly half of them are in British Columbia, according to 2019 figures.
Furthermore, the province is the only one in Canada where more than 60 percent of the officers are under federal control.
All other provinces have a provincial police force or local forces in all of their large cities, but in BC, many larger communities still rely on RCMP contacts.
It means the province needs to be very much in tune with what the federal government is considering, something Farnworth acknowledged during the press conference.
“I know that at the national level, my federal counterpart … it is in their mandate letter to look, to review contract surveillance,” he said.
“Any discussion that’s going on about the evolution of surveillance, surveillance reform…has to recognize that we’re up against some significant challenges when it comes to vacancies.”
Possible court case looming
If you think those are the words of a public safety minister looking at Surrey’s decision through a federal lens, you’re not alone.
“It’s going to be a factor,” said Oppal, who was chairman of the original Surrey police transition task force four years ago.
Simon Fraser University political science professor Stewart Prest said the province was likely to force Surrey to divest itself of the RCMP, continuing the transition that began years ago under previous mayor Doug McCallum and risking a potential lawsuit from the current mayor, Brenda Locke.
“I hope the city has to make some tough decisions about whether to lay down its arms and move on or keep fighting,” he said.
The fight of municipalities with provincial governments usually does not go in favor of the municipality (the most recent high-profile example is Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to reduce the number of councilors in Toronto), but Locke he has made the retention of the RCMP the hallmark of his leadership.
It may be a battle between city and province. But it could well be the first domino of a federal debate.
“What we’re seeing in Surrey right now can play out on a bigger stage… with the support of the federal government,” Perst said.
“Is the RCMP the force for Canada’s future? Can it be attentive to local concerns?”